Are eulogies the only issue at funerals?
For ten years of my life I was an ardent fan of Coronation Street on ITV. At the time, I was resident in a parish and preaching there; but not actively involved in pastoral ministry. I often found themes from the soap opera useful in my preaching – and one of those themes related to the fictional (Corrie) funerals the soap opera featured.
The funerals had some things in common. One was the very slight involvement of any clergy people: they might have been there, but their presence mattered little. In all cases, it was the words of the mourners that mattered most: particularly the eulogy. Nice words or true words or honest and even controversial words spoken in the presence of the other mourners were the most important feature of these funerals.
This trend in funerals is not confined to soap operas on television. Movie-goers too learn the importance of the eulogy in Hollywood’s presentation of the funeral rites. Even news programmes on television on radio reinforce the expectation: when funerals of significance occur (whether of high-profile personalities or of tragic victims), the short report which summarises the event usually highlights the heart-warming elements: the unusual gift brought forward, the touching word spoken, the unusual song sung.
It is no wonder that eulogies have become such a feature of funerals. People whose involvement in church life is slight learn how to behave from what they see in the media: hence the Coronation Street (or EastEnders or Fair City) influence on funerary practice. But even those most committed to their church have taken on an attachment to the eulogy that is hard to shake off.
Last summer, Bishop Michael Smith, Bishop of Meath, attempted to ban eulogies from the funeral liturgy. Acting on the basis of a discussion with his Council of Priests, he said that the funeral liturgy had a clear focus on prayer for the deceased, which would not provide the appropriate context for appreciations or eulogies by family members. He suggested these might take place after the Rite of Committal in the cemetery or at the wake. The bishop also sought to ban secular songs, poems and texts devoid of a Christian context.
Reaction to the bishop’s intervention was swift and for a few days it seemed talk-show hosts had little else to talk of. Instances were given of numerous high-profile funerals, where family members and friends spoke at length about the deceased during the funeral Mass. In addition, examples were given where the presider himself gave a eulogy in place of a homily, with little note taken of the content of the scriptural readings which preceded it. The question that surfaced was telling: to eulogise or not to eulogise?
I believe the wrong question was asked. Rather, the question should be: is the full funeral Mass always the appropriate way for the Church to mark the passing of one of its members? Particularly, is this the proper way to minister to one of its members who rarely was part of such an assembly for a long number of years? The baptized and confirmed Catholic may be entitled to a funeral Mass at the end of life, but is this always the most suitable, or pastoral appropriate, celebration?
The funeral Mass is a very particular ritual. One of its attractive features is its strong structure; but this structure resists local addition and adaptations. Insertion of eulogies, bringing up of extraneous ‘gifts’, inclusion of secular poems or reflections do not fit well within its framework. In some places, the pastoral adaptation made is to place all these elements prior to or immediately after the funeral Mass (and before the prayers of commendation). But this, I believe, avoids the more obvious question of whether the funeral Mass is always appropriate. (Indeed, one might wonder whether, if another type of liturgy were substituted in its place, some would even notice.)
If a funeral liturgy other than a funeral Mass were offered, it should be possible to include within the structure some of the elements desired by those who learn what funerals are from cultural sources other than church involvement. If there is no presentation of gifts of bread and wine for the Eucharist, a bringing up or placing of mementos can become a natural prelude to the ceremony, rather than a pre-Mass duplication of what ought to happen during the liturgy. The Liturgy of the Word put together in a non-eucharistic context might contain other elements: a reflection through which the deceased found the divine, a word or two from relatives or friends, a song that might capture the hope of continuing life after mortal death. All these elements would be out of place in the formal structure of the Funeral Eucharist, but a more free-flowing para-liturgy constructed locally to reflect elements considered important by the family of the deceased non-involved parishioner, might be a service to those gathered, and might also serve as an outreach to the unchurched, which the formality of the funeral Mass might not provide.
To continue to insist that the Funeral Mass is the only suitable liturgy to mark to passing of a Catholic would be to limit the Church’s engagement with those seeking solace at a traumatic time in life. The taking of a more flexible approach might open up the church’s riches to a whole generation little exposed to them.
This flexible approach might allow for the decorating of at least parts of the church in ways that reflect the enthusiasms of the deceased: balloons and flowers can both attest to transcendence, as can the use of colour and many media. Things that might not be appropriate in the context of a Mass might turn out fine in another framework. The planning of such a para-liturgy might provide a local pastor with a forum for sharing his own faith about the fate of the Christian because of Christ’s death and resurrection, and might indeed lead to an opening for Christian motifs that the war over the inclusion or non-inclusion of a eulogy would make impossible.
The seemingly easier approach is to concentrate on the funeral Mass and seek to adapt it to the needs presented by mourners today, needs that are heavily influenced by sources other than the Church itself. The braver and more sustaining in the long-term might be for pastors to recognize that all who seek funeral liturgies are not at the same level of faith and practice, and to tailor the liturgies offered to those who seek them.
Fr Bernard Cotter is parish priest of Murragh & Templemartin, residing at Newcestown, Bandon, Co Cork, Ireland. This article was first published in the Parish Practice Page of The Tablet of 9 November 2013. Reproduced here with permission of the Publisher (website: www.thetablet.co.uk).